Underrated: Dame Helena Morrissey
A City high-flier (and mother of nine) who is always willing to challenge the status quo
(ILLUSTRATION BY MICHAEL DALEY)
Dame Helena Morrissey is a heroine in the City for founding the 30% Club, which in only eight years has almost achieved her target percentage of female board members in the FTSE 100. She also runs a global billion-pound fund for Legal & General Investment Management, is active in politics, philanthropy and the arts, the bestselling author of A Good Time to Be a Girl (HarperCollins, £14.99), a pescatarian with nine children and a cockapoo puppy.
So how does Dame Helena differ from previous “superwomen”? Isn’t she just another overachiever who, while doubtless a positive role model for aspirational girls, is bound to make most other women feel like failures? And in what sense could she possibly be underrated?
The first point about Helena Morrissey is that she is not over-privileged. Her parents were teachers in Chichester; she read philosophy at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, after being educated at the local comprehensive. Having survived anorexia, she sublimated her perfectionism into a punishing work ethic: she gets up for work at 5 am. By the age of 35, she was a high-flying CEO. Though she is undeniably rich, her children have never been pampered. After the fourth child, her husband Richard gave up his journalistic job (he says he had “reached a ceiling”) to look after the family. Twenty years on and now in his mid-fifties, he is thinking about the next phase — but the prospect of grandchildren is, she remarks pointedly, “creating a new dynamic around Richard’s future”.
Despite having achieved so much, Dame Helena appears to be looking for new worlds to conquer. She comes across as much more likeable than most corporate high-fliers and her book is by no means bombastic. With all the stress that comes with success, she looks younger than her 52 years. Helena Morrissey is passionate and persuasive about everything she does. She seized every opportunity to gain the support of the Cameron government for her goal of breaking the male stranglehold on senior management in Britain, but was then closer to the “Orange Book” (free market) wing of the Liberal Democrats than the Conservatives. When in 2013 the Lib Dems were engulfed in a sex scandal centred on Lord Rennard, Dame Helena was asked to review the affair. She concluded that “no further action be taken against Lord Rennard” — a result that displeased many but enhanced her reputation for impartiality.
She has moved on in the meantime, perhaps because of the Lib Dems’ Eurofanaticism. Helena Morrissey is deeply committed to Brexit. At the time she was CEO of Newton Investment Management, whose New York-based parent company BNY Mellon imposed silence on all staff during the referendum campaign. She insists that she did not leave Newton as a result of the ban, but within a few months she had moved to Legal & General, whose chief executive, Nigel Wilson, is a fellow Brexiteer.
Why is Helena Morrissey so enthusiastic about Brexit? Her views place her in a small minority among her peers in the financial world. In a recent interview she described herself as a “progressive Brexiteer”, who “came out publicly because I felt people were being told about an EU I didn’t recognise . . . My first-hand dealings with the EU — whether it’s on financial regulation or women on boards — were the opposite of progressive. It was very much about one-size-fits-all, command and control, quite remote, you know.” Her confidence in the City’s ability to reinvent itself after Brexit is boundless and she has no time for the doom-mongers of various ilks.
Her book throws little light on this act of moral courage. But her readiness to challenge conventional wisdom, even at some cost to her career, is one of the most important facts about her to have emerged so far. It suggests that Dame Helena has indeed been underrated and that her future may be even more remarkable than her past.
Helena Morrissey knows capitalism inside out, but she also knows how to distinguish between the rules required for markets to function and a rent-seeking establishment, addicted to regulation and desperate to protect its privileges. She is exactly what this government lacks. Theresa May would be mad not to offer her a seat, a peerage or at least a role in public service. Dame Helena not only has intelligence and empathy, but the courage of her convictions. She would make a superb minister.
Her family keeps her grounded. To have mothered nine children not only consigns her to the margins of her social milieu, but is liable to attract the kind of opprobrium normally reserved for devout Catholics and Orthodox Jews from those who fear or envy their fecundity. Most people don’t share their disapproval: the most popular politician in Germany, defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, has seven children; the Tories’ rising star, Jacob Rees-Mogg, has six. The nine new lives Helena Morrissey has brought into the world express her confidence in the prospects for posterity: not luck but hope. The Morrisseys represent an act of faith in the future of Western civilisation.